4 major environmental treaties the United States has never ratified – but should

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In one of his first acts at the White House, President Joe Biden signed an executive order for the United States to join the Paris climate accord. It marked an important step in the country’s re-commitment to act to tackle climate change after the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the deal and worked to roll back environmental regulations across the board. national.

Biden’s decision has been hailed by world leaders and applauded by environmentalists across the country. But the climate convention was not the only global environmental agreement the country has been conspicuously absent from.

Here are four international treaties that have been ratified by most countries around the world, but not by the United States.

1. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

The Law of the Sea of ​​1982 helped establish an international framework for the management and protection of the ocean, including by delimiting exclusive economic zones and creating the International Seabed Authority, which is currently responsible for drafting regulations for seabed mining.

“Originally the US government agreed to the treaty when it was finalized in the late 1970s, but when President Reagan took office he called for a review of the negotiations, sacked the chief of negotiations at the State Department and appointed her own people who created a new list of demands, ”said Kristina Gjerde, assistant professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies and senior high seas advisor to the program World Marine and Polar World Conservation Union.

When the treaty was not reworked to meet these needs, Reagan’s team did not sign it. It would have taken until 1994 to obtain an American signature, but the country has still not ratified it. To do so would require two-thirds approval in the Senate.

“The Law of the Sea has been consistently supported by everything from the US Navy to the Department of Commerce,” Gjerde said. “There is no one who is really against it – other than those who do not like the United States to engage in multilateral institutions.”

Unfortunately, there are enough people in the Senate with this mindset to delay this treaty, and many others. But that hasn’t stopped people from continuing to push for the United States to adhere to the Law of the Sea.

There are plenty of reasons it would be good for the country, but Gjerde says one of the biggest right now is that the United States must step back while regulations are being drafted on exploitation. deep seabed mining.

“The United States has no say in ensuring that regulations are adequately environmentally friendly,” she said. “And the country has many islands and waters that would be subject to potential environmental impacts from seabed mining by other states.”

2. The Convention on Biological Diversity

The treaty, which garnered its first signatures at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, has been called the world’s best weapon to fight the extinction crisis. It has three main stated objectives: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

The United States played an important role in drafting the agreement, but when 150 countries rallied to sign it, George W. Bush refused to do so. Bill Clinton signed the treaty after taking office in 1993, but it never received the necessary ratification vote by the Senate.

And this is still not the case.

The United States is the only member of the United Nations that has yet to ratify it, “which is just a shame,” says Maria Ivanova, professor of global governance and director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Canada. Massachusetts to Boston. .

This omission stands in stark contrast to the country’s history of commitment to conservation, she said.

“The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was originally called the Washington Convention because the first meeting was held in DC,” says Ivanova. “The United States was a champion of this convention and the first to create national parks.”

But that commitment began to fade in the 1980s with “runaway capitalism,” she says. “It means you can use nature with impunity without replenishing anything. “

The United States still participates in the Conference of the Parties convened for the Convention on Biological Diversity, but without having ratified the agreement, it is relegated to “observer” status. This year, a delegation from California will also be present in the hope of strengthening the United States’ commitment to biodiversity.

3. Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants

The Stockholm Convention, an effort to protect human health and the environment from harmful chemicals, was adopted in 2001. The treaty identifies “persistent” chemicals – those that stay in the environment for a long time and can bioaccumulate along the food chain.

Currently, the treaty regulates nearly 30 of these chemicals, which may mean that countries must restrict or ban their use, limit their trade, or develop strategies to properly dispose of stocks or sites contaminated with waste chemicals.

So far, 184 countries have ratified the agreement. The United States signed it in 2001, but again, the treaty has yet to be ratified by the Senate. This means that the United States is often behind on banning harmful chemicals, such as pentachlorophenol, a highly toxic pesticide.

4. Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal

The United States has also signed but not ratified the Basel Convention, which entered into force in 1992. This international treaty restricts the movement of hazardous wastes (excluding radioactive materials) between countries. It was written to help curb the practice of richer, industrialized nations dumping their hazardous waste in less developed, less wealthy countries.

The convention now tackles the global scourge of plastic waste, of which the United States is the largest contributor. A new provision came into effect this year that aims to reduce the amount of waste shipped to other countries that cannot be recycled and ends up being burned or leaking into the environment.

The Basel Convention has also made efforts to tackle electronic waste. The failure of the United States to ratify the treaty, experts say, has allowed companies to shift the recycling of toxic computer components to developing countries. The outsourcing of plastic and electronic waste recycling from the United States to developing countries has recently been linked to the entry of chemicals into the food chain through the eggs consumed by the world’s poorest people.

Next steps

If you see a trend here for the United States to sign – but not ratify – treaties, you’re not wrong. “In the United States, the biggest obstacle is that ratification of a treaty has to go through the Senate,” says Ivanova.

Despite this roadblock, which has blocked full U.S. participation in some international agreements for decades, some still hope for a different outcome. “I think it’s sort of the dream of most of those engaged in international action for the United States to join in these important international processes,” Gjerde said.

Regarding the law of the sea in particular, she said: “This is an opportunity to once again show true global leadership by tackling the many challenges facing the ocean. “

There are others who might disagree.

“You hear the argument from many policymakers internationally that they have done well without the United States in the negotiations,” Ivanova said. “So maybe it’s better if the United States doesn’t sign.”

Perhaps this is because the United States can oppose a lot of things and be an obstacle in the negotiations. Or because the country can negotiate from its own point of view of national interest.

“The United States has disproportionate power in global governance,” she said. “Or he used to. He has to regain the credibility and legitimacy that he has lost.”

But, she says, there are probably more advantages for the United States to ratifying the conventions and being a legitimate player on the world stage.

“All of these issues are global and we need all countries to get involved,” she said. “We need everyone on the bridge. And the United States is a powerful state and brings with it a lot of additional expertise and commitment.”

The United States, in addition to government representation, has leading universities and NGOs that do research and advocacy. “And so when the United States is part of a deal, they bring with them all the power they have intellectually and financially,” says Ivanova.

Not participating leaves the country open to criticism and reduces the likelihood that some countries themselves will improve their laws. More recently, the US environmental shortcomings have been denounced by China whenever its own record is called into question.

With that in mind, the best thing the United States can do to restore its environmental credibility internationally is to act at home. The Obama administration got the narrative well, but it didn’t match the action enough, says Ivanova. Now it is crucial to do better.

“A lot of people misunderstand the big picture [of these international treaties]”she said.” You actually implement them at home – you are not going to implement them in The Gambia or anywhere else. To achieve these goals, you need to actually take action at home. “


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